Ex-con Paul Little’s parole is up and his grandfather’s in the ground, making now the best time to hightail it out of Philadelphia to take up residence on the late man’s North Carolina farm. Thing is, as he’s just broken up with the girlfriend who has supported him since his release, he’s barely got the dough for a greyhound ticket, much less to start farming. So when he gets wind of a shady deal involving the delivery of a mysterious package for an even more mysterious businessman, he signs on for the cool grand gig despite his better judgment. Soon enough, bodies start piling up and cops and other unsavories are all over his ass, making his modest dreams of tobacco farmerhood seem less and less likely with every passing hour.
Such is the premise of Aaron Philip Clark’s The Science of Paul, a game attempt to recreate the feel of the socially conscious crime novels of long ago, books from authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Thing is, attempt is the operative word in that statement (if you’ll allow the Nerd to trot out that weak-ass fucking idiom before your philistinic eyes, dear reader) because while the crime shit in the novel is smooth and understated the IMPORTANT THEMES sections of the novel may as well be written out in all caps like, you know, IMPORTANT THEMES is in this very sentence. (Jesus Christ, speaking of beating you over the head, how about that last sentence? Sometimes I simultaneously amaze and disgust myself.)
Clark does a nice job of setting up Little using the first-person perspective, showing Paul as a decent guy with more options than many ex-cons yet unable to see any of them through thanks to the haze of his self-loathing and general “I’m totally fucked” world view. Little hates himself so much that he ditches his saintly girlfriend (and perfectly willing meal ticket) mainly because he doesn’t feel he deserves her. Clark takes his time building up to the crime plot as well, the seedy events slowly sneaking up on Paul and then eventually consuming his life, the inevitability weighing over the novel like a classic Goodis novel. The complexity of the scheme Paul has stumbled into the middle of is never fully revealed until near the end of the novel, the “mystery” aspect of the plot being complicated more from the “what information who knows and when sense” than in the dreaded “this shit goes all the way to the White House” over-the-top bullshit sense.
Clark definitely has some interesting, excitingly un-PC things to say about the black experience in modern America, the Nerd just doesn’t feel that this particular story was the vehicle for such musings. Too often are the times when, just when we’re really rocking on the despair and the crime and the grime, that the novel stops dead for Paul to wax jarringly poetic about a sociology book he randomly picked up or talk about his place in the world and what it means. There were times where I felt a passage was added because the book hadn’t been IMPORTANT enough for a few pages.
There’s indeed a place in crime fiction for social themes. Many argue there’s no sense in getting into the genre without an interest in social realism. Thing is, the best ones at that type of shit, guys like Ray Banks and George Pelecanos, sneak that shit in right under your nose, prick you with the needle while you’re looking at the puppy book. Aaron Philip Clark has got style, a strong sense of story and place, and no small amount of ambition. Once he finds the story that can more naturally support what he wants to say he’s gonna blow some fucking minds.